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Cyber cops and domain name registrars meet to tackle net crooks

Tackling criminal activity on a borderless internet

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Cyber cops from both sides of the Atlantic are meeting with domain name registrars in Brussels today to try to figure out ways to crack down on internet crime.

This second meeting of the "EU-US working group on cyber security and cybercrime" is dedicated to increasing cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the companies that unwittingly sell web addresses to online crooks, according to attendees.

"We're trying to get both sides to communicate, so that we on our side have some idea what they're trying to achieve, and they on their side understand what we're able to do technically," said Michele Neylon, managing director of the Irish registrar Blacknight Solutions.

The two-day consultation comes as police in the US and UK are increasingly turning their attention to domain names as an internet choke-point that can be used to shut down web sites selling counterfeit goods and enabling the trading of pirated movies and child pornography.

The controversial Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), currently being discussed in the US, would codify the government's domain seizure powers. In the UK, the Serious Organised Crime Agency is pushing for a Nominet policy that would make it easier for police to shut down sites selling bogus goods.

But the last two days of meetings in Brussels have focused on discussing ways to help law enforcement crack down on all types on cybercrime, and on ways the domain name industry can self-regulate through policies overseen by ICANN, according to Go Daddy general counsel Christine Jones and other attendees.

Specifically, registrars are responding to recommendations made in October 2009 by the FBI, the Mounties, SOCA, and law enforcement agencies from Australia and New Zealand. The recommendations call on ICANN to conduct more rigorous due diligence before accrediting registrars, and to more aggressively police their conduct thereafter.

Law enforcement is particularly interested in the Whois services that registrars have to provide, which enables anyone to quickly uncover the name, address and phone number of any domain name registrant.

Cops don't like the proxy/privacy add-on services that many registrars offer to shield their customers' personal data from prying eyes.

They want these services either banned or regulated through ICANN, using an accreditation program similar to the one used to approve registrars. Only private individuals engaged in non-commercial activities would be allowed to use privacy services, under these proposals.

They also want ICANN to force registrars to collect more validated data about their customers, and to more effectively control their reseller networks.

Registrars have pushed back to an extent, partly because many of law enforcement's demands could be tricky and/or expensive to implement.

"We take a pretty aggressive approach to these issues already, so it would not be particularly burdensome for Go Daddy, but it could be for some of the smaller registrars that perhaps don't have the resources," said Jones.

A major issue is that obtaining an ICANN registrar accreditation is fairly easy, quite cheap, and as a result there are almost 1,000 approved registrars. Many of these are simply shell companies, and some do not make even basic efforts to comply with ICANN's existing rules.

Complicating matters, some registrars have thousands of resellers, which are not directly bound by ICANN contracts. As it stands, ICANN's compliance department barely has the resources to police its existing registrars; it has been without a senior director of compliance since July last year.

In addition, the aftermath of recent US domain seizures has shown that when law enforcement grabs a .com domain, criminals quickly relocate their websites to country-code domains, which are not subject to ICANN oversight or US jurisdiction.

With all this in mind, registrars have been discussing the best ways to help tackle the very real problem of criminal activity on a borderless internet. It's tricky.

"There's no disagreement about the intent," Jean-Christophe Vignes, CEO of OpenRegistry, said from Brussels. "No self-respecting registrar, and certainly no registrar in the room, would say we don't want to fight crime. The question is: how do we get there?"

The Brussels meeting is reportedly very well attended. Delegates include registrars representing a majority of the world's registered domain names, as well as law enforcement agencies from several European and North American countries. ®

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